Beside Still Waters is a story of murder, rape, revenge, and redemption
told from the viewpoints of a white farmer and a young woman of mix-race in
early 20th century Mississippi.
Jake is a young, white farmer who
witnesses a young boy accidentally murder his own father. Olivia is a young,
mixed-race woman newly arrived in the community. Edmunds is an associate of the
victim who threatens Jake’s life depending on Jake’s testimony even as he
becomes obsessed with Olivia.
As Jake struggles to determine
what he will risk to see justice done, Olivia is struggling with hidden secrets
and revelations regarding her parentage.
Set in the Mississippi Delta in
1905 against the backdrop of the changing seasons and the rhythm of planting,
tending, and harvesting, Beside Still Waters tells the story of
difficult decisions and expected consequences that trigger a cascade of events
leading to tragedy, loss, redemption, and salvation.
Beside Still Waters vividly recreates another time and place, similar to
Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain or Jeffery Lent’s A Slant of Light,
as it deals with ordinary people coping with issues of ethical choice and
racial identity, in short, issues that are, if anything, more relevant today
Here is a sample.
1 - IT HAD BEEN
WINTER THEN TOO
of the weak winter sun, diffused by high thin clouds, flooded the
pale, white light. The old man’s hands rested on the checkered
covered the kitchen table, big hands, weathered, curled in repose.
It was warm and
quiet in the kitchen
with only the susurration of gas vaporizing in the heater, tiny tongues
flame heating the waffle pattern of the ceramic bricks cherry red, and
domestic sounds of his wife at the stove. From time to time the
sweeping unhindered down from the Great Plains and across the
Delta, would whip another gust against the house with enough strength
the windows. But inside it was warm and protected.
He told a story
which was at one
moment rich in vivid, life-giving detail, draping flesh to bone, then
lost in a frustrating paucity of telling features, like an old man’s
which it was, dredged up from over sixty years ago, memories long
subsumed, as a long-suppressed shame, which in part it was, but
with a firm conviction that the years of silent retrospection had
any uncertainty or equivocation of thought, will, or intent that might
existed at the time.
He shifted his
gaze form the boy across
the table and stared absently out the window across the ocher stubble
pasture to the gray smudge of the distant forest, a diminished remnant
it had been when he had first come here, still rich in thick stands of
wild canebrakes, sloughs and bayous, small game and deer, gray and red
too, but a shade of its former self, too little left to sustain the
panther which were killed off long ago as the shadowed world they
remorselessly reduced by ax and plow and given over to pasture and
woods still wild but no longer primeval, subdued now, diminished if not
His wife, almost
as old as he,
adjusted the heat on the stove as she warmed leftovers for supper and
with belying inattention. She knew some of the story but not all. She
had. They were of time and place, another world really, where the
orbits of men
and women, the things they shared and discussed, even if married to
overlapped far less than in these days.
But it was more
than that, much more.
There were things he talked about with men, men who shared the same
desires, and hopes: bank shares and loans, cotton prices and gin rates
yields per acre, things he would never have even thought to share with
Just as he would never have presumed to interfere with how she managed
home or raised their children.
But it was even
more than that. There
had been men he could not understand with motives he could not fathom
threats he could not ignore, things that he wanted desperately to
But even that was
not the whole of it.
He had never shared with his wife, the mother of all his children, the
woman he had ever loved, all that he had risked, all that he had dared,
part of him that he had sacrificed during that first year of their
The house in
which they now lived was
larger than that other one but still wood-framed, still simple, still
white although green striped fabric awnings stretched over metal frames
shielded most windows from the remorseless Delta summer sun. That other
long gone now, had been warmed by wood-burning fireplaces, cooking done
wood-burning stove. Now gas appliances made all of that easier,
although he was
not convinced it was better, only easier, but there was something to be
It had been
winter then too, when it
had all started, not deep winter with the ground frozen iron-hard and
branches rattling in the northwest wind like the sound their antlers
during the tentative jousting of bucks in rut, but that last gasp of
when one senses that spring is just holding its breath waiting for the
moment to exhale.
The old man
paused and without
conscious thought ran the blunt fingertips of his left hand along the
his left temple just above the templepiece of his wire-rimmed glasses.
was as wide and long as his forefinger, not deep, not puckered, faint,
than his sun-browned face, almost white. His big hand drifted down his
and across his mouth, then dropped back to the kitchen table.
happened a long time ago,
1905, to be exact. Your grandmother and I had only been married about a
the old man spoke slowly, softly.
He hesitated and
looked at the boy
across the table not sure exactly why he felt compelled, after all
to tell the story or why he chose to tell it now, to this boy, one of
many grandchildren. Was it because the boy had spent so much time with
him all over the place until he knew every inch of the farm and woods
as the old man did, had listened enthralled to so many old stories?
made, the old man
continued, “You know, I’ve never told anyone this before, but I have to
Son, old age doesn’t just take your strength, it takes your memories
everyone else is gone now. All but one, and she doesn’t know the entire
no more than I do. When the two of us are gone it will be lost.”
The old man hung
his head. “And I
don’t want the story lost,” said, even as he thought, too much had
things that had shaped him and consequently his entire family, even
eager boy across that table from him.
He raised his
dark eyes and looked
into the boy’s face, unlined, innocent, trusting, on the verge of
a few years younger than he had been when it had all started. The old
paused. Could he have been that young, that innocent then? No, not
much. After all, he already had a family at that time and
responsibility for a
farm, the farm which he now owned and on which he still lived.
“I wadn’t much
older than you when I
first came to New Bethel,” the old man sighed.
Copywrite 2015 by James Gregory Catledge